APOTHEOSIS OF THE
Infancy, fearless, lustful, happy! nestling for
In laps of pleasure. . . .
(William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of
'I wish I had been born in the Moon,' sighed Tristram Shandy, in Sterne's novel; and he then offered to dedicate part of the book, of which he himself was part, in exchange for fifty guineas, to any nobleman who was in need of a 'tight, genteel dedication'. The remainder of the book was to be dedicated to the Moon, 'who . . . has most power to set my book a‑going, and make the world run mad after it.' 
Twenty‑five years later, in late 1784, William Blake, then twenty‑seven, did indeed 'run mad after it'. Taking hints from Sterne and Rabelais, he wrote his delectable burlesque, An Island in the Moon.  It is a cunning little drama, packed with ostensibly inconsequential, seemingly innocent, fun and nonsense, but cannily contrived to tiptoe neatly across various serious matters then close to Blake's own concerns.
In 1781, Mrs Barbauld had published her Hymns in Prose for Children; this was, as I hope to show, a crucial text in Blake's own development. But for the moment let us merely note that in Hymn XI she posed some earnest cosmic questions: looking at the planets and the stars, she asked,
Who can tell the birth and generations of so many worlds? Who can relate their histories? Who can describe their inhabitants?
Canst thou measure infinity with a line? Canst thou grasp the circle of infinite space?
Yet all these depend upon God, they hang upon Him as a child upon the breast of its mother; He tempereth the heat to the inhabitant of Mercury; He provideth resources against the cold in the frozen orb of Saturn . . .
— a workmanlike pastiche of the Book of Job, with variations on the theme of Divine Providence, stressing the exotic otherness of those far‑off other worlds, so as to point up the Deity's ubiquitous resourcefulness.
In An Island in the Moon, Blake took the opposite tack; Chapter One begins: 'In the Moon is a certain Island . . . which . . . seems to have some affinity to England, & what is even more extraordinary the people are so much alike & their language so much the same that you would think you was among your friends.' Blake's tone is as reassuring as a trim booby‑trap: his story‑drama opens with three Philosophers, sitting together, 'thinking of nothing'—Suction, the Epicurean; Quid, the Cynic (identified as Blake himself); and Sipsop, the Pythagorean. Etruscan Column, the Antiquarian—his name itself a glancing reference to the cult of neoclassicism in such circles—enters and, being a good didactic, he 'described something that nobody listend to'. He is followed by Mrs Gimblet, who seems to listen carefully while Etruscan Column 'seemd to be talking of virtuous cats'—a popular topic in the moral fables of the time. But the word 'seemd' should have alerted us: in fact, Mrs Gimblet 'was thinking of the shape of her eyes & mouth' and the distinguished antiquarian was 'thinking of his eternal fame'.
As the three philosophers continue to sit, each laughing at his own imaginings, Inflammable Gass, the Wind‑finder, enters; or, to give him his proper name, Joseph Priestley, philosopher, theologian, electrician, chemist, unitarian minister and polymathic member of the Lunar Society. His Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit were published in 1777, a second enlarged edition following in 1782, by the radical bookseller, Joseph Johnson, for whom Blake worked as an engraver. Column tells Gass of a 'little outré fellow' who, on seeing a flock of swallows, had asked him who they all belonged to. Column had called him a fool for asking such a silly question, but Gass solemnly insists that the man was quite properly 'desirous of enquiring into the works of nature', and therefore, as an experimental philosopher, deserved a courteous answer.
Obtuse Angle, the mathematician, enters, and wants to know what exactly is going on. Sipsop's answer is that they are 'endeavoring to incorporate their souls with their bodies', a trim reference to Priestley's Disquisitions. The conversation turns to consider the merits or otherwise of Voltaire, and when Column says that he 'was immersed in matter & seems to have understood very little but what he saw before his eyes', Gass—a good associationist and popularizer of Hartleyan psychology—retorts that 'he was the Glory of France—I have got a bottle of air that would spread a Plague'. Priestley's Experiments and Observations on different kinds of Air had appeared in 1774:  Gass's claim to possess a bottle of air that 'would spread a Plague', following hard on Voltaire's heels, is a neat case of collocation, for orthodox English opinion saw Voltaire's views as a moral plague. It was indeed to counteract the spread of such a plague that Priestley's house in Birmingham was to be attacked and burnt by the Church and King mob, the authorities turning a blind eye, only seven years later.
Chapter Two enlarges the cast of Blake's farce: the entire chapter consists of:
Tilly Lally, the Siptippidist, Aradobo, the dean of Morocco, Miss Gittipin, Mrs Nannicantipot, Mrs Sistagatist, Gibble Gabble the wife of Inflammable Gass—& Little Scopprell enter'd the room.
(If I have not presented you with every character in the piece, call me Ass.)
In Chapter Three, which is slightly longer, Aradobo appears as a pedagogue's vision of the dutifully enquiring child: his role is to feed questions, as in the didactic dialogues of children's books, to whoever is likely to have Useful Knowledge to dispense; Obtuse Angle for example, tells him that Phoebus was 'the God of Physic, Painting Perspective geometry Geography Astronomy, Cookery Chymistry Mechanics, Tactics Pathology Phraseology Theology Mythology Astrology Osteology, Somatology . . .', a fair parody of the age's mania for polymathy; Angle also delivers a characteristically pedagogical rebuke—'you should always think before you speak'—and poor Aradobo ends the chapter duly chastened: 'Here Aradobo sucked his under lip.'
Chapter Four involves the company in a discussion of profanity and religious orthodoxy. With unwittingly prescient irony, Blake has Gass admit that, 'If I had not a place of profit that forces me to go to church . . . Id see the parsons all hangd; a parcel of lying—.' Mrs Sistagatist recalls her own girlhood church‑going with odd relish, and the chapter ends with a sprightly Shandyesque trick: 'Then Mr Inflammable Gass ran & shovd his head into the fire & set his hair all in a flame & ran about the room—No no he did not, I was only making a fool of you' [i.e. the reader].
In Chapter Five, poor Aradobo continues to ask his dutiful infantine questions, but only succeeds in getting into deeper water for his pains:
'Pray . . . is Chatterton a Mathematician?' 'No' said Obtuse Angle 'how can you be so foolish as to think he was?' 'Oh I did not think he was; I only askd. . .' 'How could you think he was not, & ask if he was?' 'Oh no Sir I did think he was before you told me but afterwards I thought he was not.' '. . . in the first place you thought he was & then afterwards when I said he was not you thought he was not! Why I know that ‑' ‘Oh no sir I thought that he was not but I asked to know whether he was.—‘
Everyone who can recall a smart teacher from their early years will recognize the truth of that encounter, which peels away all the layers of cant that overlay the dialogues in most children's books of the time. When the three philosophers return, and 'lowring darkness hoverd oer the assembly', Aradobo decides to show off the useful knowledge that he has acquired: his performance is a delightful parody of an infantine display of knowledge:
In the first place I think I think in the first place that Chatterton was clever at Fissic Follogy, Pistinology, Aridology, Arography, Transmography Phizography Hagamy Hatomy, & hall that but in the first place he eat wery little wickly that is he slept very little which he brought into a consumsion, & what was that that he took Fisic or somethink & so died. 
Sipsop is nevertheless—or therefore—optimistic about Aradobo's mental development, and so is Quid, who, in the next chapter, dismisses Plutarch as 'a nasty ignorant puppy . . . theres Aradobo in ten or twelve years will be a far superior genius'. Sipsop agrees: 'Aradabo will make a very clever fellow'. Indeed, Quid continues, 'I think that any natural fool would make a clever fellow if he was properly brought up'—a case of Locke being stretched to absurd extremes. Suction will have none of this: 'Ah hang your reasoning . . . I hate reasoning. I do everything by my feelings.' Thus the man of feeling is also allowed to make his voice heard in the midst of all the pother about the proper formation of the mind!
There follows a satire on surgery as an experimental science—no one is safe—and Hunter, the distinguished surgeon, enters, as Jack Tearguts. As for benevolence of motive, or utility, in such a calling, Sipsop confesses cheerfully: 'When I think of Surgery—I dont know, I do it because I like it. My father does what he likes & so do L' Nothing, it seems, is safe from Blake's light‑hearted iconoclasm!
Suction's defence of feeling, or 'sensibility', continues throughout Chapter Seven, and he cries out 'Hang Philosophy . . . do all by your feelings and never think at all about it.' Chapter Eight finds the artist, Flaxman, disguised as Steelyard the Lawgiver, gloomily taking extracts from Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs and Young's Night Thoughts, and hoping that he will live to see 'The wreck of matter & the crush of worlds', a forerunner of Lady Delancour's observation, in Maria Edgeworth's Belinda: ‘Here she is ‑ what doing I know not ‑ studying Hervey's Meditation on the Tombs, I should guess, by the sanctification of her looks.’ 
Scopprell, nosing about, misreads 'An Easy of Huming Understanding by John Lookye Gent' and much singing ensues, though 'felicity does not last long'. In Chapter Ten we are offered a hilarious scene of confusion that reads like a farcical parody of Joseph Wright's 'Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' of 1769: experimental philosophy domesticated with a vengeance!
'Come Flammable,' said Gibble Gabble, '& lets enjoy ourselves; bring the Puppets.' 'Hay Hay!' said he, 'you sho. why ya ya. How can you be so foolish—Ha Ha Ha she calls the experiments puppets!' Then he went up stairs & loaded the maid with glasses, & brass tubes, and magic pictures. . . .
While Tilly Lally & Scopprell were pumping at the air pump Smack went the glass—'Hang!' said Tilly Lally. Inflammable Gass turnd short round & threw down the table & Glasses & Pictures & broke the bottles of wind & let out the Pestilence. He saw the Pestilence fly out of the bottle & cried out while he ran out of the room, 'come out come out we are putrified, we are corrupted, our lungs are destroyd with the Flogiston this will spread a plague all thro the Island.' He was down the stairs the very first; on the back of him came all the others in a heap.
So they need not bidding go.
The Edgeworths, Mrs Marcet and Jeremiah Joyce, in their popularization of scientific enquiry, never let it be known that it could be so perilously hilarious, so humanly fallible, so very comical.
The remainder of the surviving text, which was never published during Blake's lifetime, is mostly devoted to lively sessions of singing. Among the songs performed are nursery-rhymes, Newbery‑style ABCs, and three of Blake's own songs that we know better in the context of Songs of Innocence (1789).
It would be contrary to the spirit of An Island to read it solemnly, but there is, nevertheless, much point in Blake's burlesque. He was keenly attentive to the intellectual and pedagogical currents of radical, dissenting and scientific thought that flowed—sometimes it must have been a torrent—through Joseph Johnson's shop, which was as much a talk-shop as a bookshop.  Implicit in all the farce, nonsense and Shandysim is a clear view of the influence and fashions to which the late eighteenth century mind was exposed: mechanistic notions of consciousness, a utilitarian view of what was worth knowing, a fashion for moralizing cant, the spread of an infantine proto‑science, a largely prudential moral orthodoxy, the enthusiasm of the Man of the Feeling, the encyclopaedic aspirations of dutiful children—all are poured into Blake's topsy‑turvey lunar world, and given a good shaking.
Towards the end of An Island, Tilly Lally sings a song of execrable doggerel, a banal parody of a moral tale in verse:
O I say you Joe,Throw us the ball. Ive a good mind to goAnd leave you all. 
If such fustian can be said to hit off the miserable doggerel that passed for verse in such books as Newbery's, did Songs of Innocence spring fully formed from Blake's idiosyncratic genius? Did they in any way follow precedent? What, if any, were Blake's precedents? Isaac Watts, assuredly. Blake's 'Cradle Song'—'Sweet dreams form a shade'—clearly owed something to Watts's 'Cradle Hymn', one of the few almost tender hymns from his pen; 'A Dream'—'Once a dream did weave a shade'—owed something to Watts's 'The Ant, or Emmet', as well as to the traditional nursery rhyme, 'Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home'; and one of Watts's Horae Lyricae poems lies behind Blake's 'Little Black Boy'.
Two closer influences are to be found in eighteenth-century hymns, as John Holloway has shown,  and in Mrs Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children of 1781. Dr Johnson observed that, for children, Watts 'condescended to lay aside the scholar, the philosopher, the wit, to write little poems of devotion'.  In general, though, Johnson would have been grateful for 'a greater measure of sprightliness and vigour'—a nice understatement. Mrs Barbauld echoed Johnson's words: 'The author is deservedly honoured for the condescension of his Muse, which was very able to take a loftier flight.' Then she straightway entered a reservation: 'It may well be doubted whether poetry ought to be lowered to the capacities of children.' Poetry should be kept from them, she argued, until they are capable of relishing 'good verse': nursery rhymes, or folk‑songs, are implicitly, not good verse, for 'the very essence of poetry is an elevation in thought and style above the common standard'. For such reasons, she decided to write her hymns in prose! They were written, moreover, to be committed to memory, and recited: she had a much less ironic view of children's memorizings than Blake had. Her larger, or higher, aim was to 'impress devotional feelings as early as possible on the infant mind'—the verb is Locke's, but the sentiment could embrace both deism and evangelicalism: hence, the extraordinary success of Mrs Barbauld's volume. 'They cannot be impressed too soon . . . a child ought never to remember the time when he had no such idea.' And such ideas are to be firmly impressed 'by connecting religion with a variety of sensible [i.e. perceived] objects, with all that he sees, all he hears'. The law of the association of ideas will do the rest. Here are her lambs:
The lambs just dropped are in the field, they totter by the side of their dams, their young limbs can hardly support their weight. If you fall, little lambs, you will not be hurt; there is spread under you a carpet of soft grass; it is spread on purpose to receive you.
And here is her village green:
Look at that spreading oak, the pride of the village green: its trunk is massy, its branches are strong. Its roots, like crooked fangs [an inept association!] strike deep into the soil, and support its huge bulk. . . . The old men point it out to their children [sic], but they themselves remember its growth.
Having abandoned, or forsworn, lyricism, and not having a story to tell, Mrs Barbauld sailed perilously close to the stupefying wind of explanation. Indeed, her village green echoes, not with song and laughter, but with the voice of the tutor or governess: as she insisted towards the end of her hymn, 'Instruction is the food of the mind; it is like the dew and the rain and the rich soil.' The itch to instruct proved too strong: it is difficult to believe, or to remind oneself, that this is a hymn. And yet there are many moments of genuine delicacy and tenderness in the hymns, and it seems that they both touched and provoked or vexed Blake at various points, for many of his Songs either alight on the same subject or feeling or, conversely, counteract or contradict Mrs Barbauld, in a kind of dialectic. Let us see how they correlate:
'The Shepherd' ‑ protective Hymn III — protective
shepherd and lambs shepherd and lambs
'Infant Joy' Hymn III — baby gives
'A Cradle Song' Hymn V– God protects
'Laughing Song' – 'the Hymn VI — cheerful forest
green woods laugh with the Hymn VII — the trees have
voice of joy' no voice, but we have: to
'The Little Black Boy' Hymn VIII – a black
woman slave, with sick
child: God hears her
weeping and pities her
There is also a debt here to Isaac Watts's 'Grace Shining' in the Horae Lyricae:
‘And we are put on earth a 'Nor is my soul refin'd
little space, enough
That we may learn to bear To bear the Beaming of his
the beams of love. . . .’ Love,
And feel his warmer Smiles.
When shall I rest this
I love, I love the Sun, and
yet I want the Shade'
'The Ecchoing Green' Hymn X – oak tree on
village green, with old men
'Nurse's Song' Hymn V – Sunset and rest:
(This appears in An Island, 'no sound of children at
where Mrs Nannicantipot play'
introduces it as 'my
'Holy Thursday' Hymn VII – 'Can we raise
our voices up to the high
'On Another's Sorrow' Hymn VIII – 'If one is sick
they mourn together; and if
one is happy they rejoice
'Spring' Hymns IX and XIV –
'The Schoolboy' Hymn IX – 'Who
'If buds are nipped, preserveth [flowers] alive
And blossoms blown through the cold winter
away . . . when the sharp frost bites
How shall the summer arise on the plain?
in joy? Hymn XII – 'O Nature
Or how shall we . . . bless why dost thou sit mourning
the mellowing year, and desolate [in winter]?'
When the blasts of winter
'The Lamb' Hymn II – lamb
'Little lamb, who made Hymn IV ‑'He that made
thee?' the lion is stronger than he'
'Night' Hymns XII‑XV – night,
death and an after‑life
The extent and proximity of these correspondences of subject‑matter suggest that the relationship between Mrs Barbauld's Hymns and Blake's Songs is much more than a matter of coincidence, or of both drawing on the appropriate parts of the Bible. And this is confirmed by the evidence of the Songs of Experience (1794), some of which were written during the same period—the late 1780s. The most obvious are these:
'My Pretty Rose Tree' Hymn IV ‑'Come and I
will show you . . . a rose
XV – 'The rose is sweet,
but it is surrounded
'The Lilly'‑'The modest Hymn IX – 'How doth the
Rose . . . the Lilly white' rose draw its crimson from
the dark brown earth, or
the lily its shining white?'
'The Tyger'  Hymn IV ‑'The lion is
strong, but He that made
the lion is stronger than he:
His anger is terrible'
Hymn VI – 'Did thy heart
feel no terror but of the
thunderbolt? Was there
nothing bright and terrible
but the lightning? . . . His
terrors were abroad, and
did not thine heart
Mrs Barbauld's Hymns are sung, if that is the right word, in praise of a benevolent Divine Providence, and they assert the presence, in nature and human life, of winter, slavery, decay, death and suffering—they are, therefore, not innocent; they do not represent human life and nature through the unclouded eye of innocence. Blake's Songs, on the contrary, do just that: they are not songs about innocence, or songs written for innocent readers, but songs sung, as it were, by innocence. In Songs of Innocence, the 'of' signifies 'from' or 'belonging to' or 'expressing', rather than 'about'. Mrs Barbauld's Hymns, being providential, embrace aspects of 'experience', such as slavery and illness, and resolve them easily by placing them within the reconciling framework of a divine plan, which is to be accepted by the reader. Blake's Songs of Innocence do not even attend to the darker aspects of the world because the child who makes the song is simply not aware of such aspects: he is still innocent of them. The Songs of Experience, conversely, speak with the knowledge of the pain, suffering and evil, but offer no reconciliation, no harmonious resolution.
Thus, we can see Blake's creative energy working in two ways: it is as if he began by writing Songs of Innocence—a chap book of poems or hymns for young children—in order to prove Mrs Barbauld wrong, i.e. to prove that it was possible to write poetry for children. But even as he worked on the repertoire of Innocence, that he had drawn from the Hymns and elsewhere, its contrary, Experience, insisted on being given a hearing, too. So the creative dialectic threw up two contradictory and irreconcilable perceptions of the same range of subjects. Declining to meet Mrs Barbauld on her comfortable, providential and reconciling ground, he side‑stepped her to both left and right: towards an innocence which had no need of providential rationalization and towards an experience which could not be providentially rationalized.
In themselves, the Songs of Innocence are totally successful poems for children: fresh, alert, lyrical and simple: quite free of the trammels of serious, or solemn, significance that renders the hymns of John Wesley, Christopher Smart  and Mrs Barbauld so unsympathetic and uneven. But since Blake, in 1794, brought them into intimate and inevitable relationship with their contraries in Song of Innocence and Experience, the consequences are, for the reader, similarly unavoidable. Whilst children may continue to find joy and delight in the Songs of Innocence, the adult reader must face up to the tensions, the intimate contradictions, of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, accepting what Blake explicitly offers: 'the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul'. As he wrote in his unpublished Motto:
The Good are attracted by Mens perceptionsAnd Think not for themselvesTill Experience teaches them to catchAnd to Cage the Fairies & Elves. 
Once we have caught and caged the Fairies and Elves, we cannot pretend not to have done so, cannot reclaim Innocence and deny Experience. The adult reader, therefore, unlike the child, is not free to read the Songs of Innocence alone, exclusively, as if the Songs of Experience did not exist, or could be put aside or forgotten. For the adult reader, they must be accepted as inseparable.
Two examples may suffice to show that to ignore this inseparability can lead to gross misreadings. Both involve the social and economic condition of children in eighteenth-century London, and we can begin by looking at this through the optimistic eyes of Joseph Addison, back in July 1713. He was feeling rather euphoric after the celebrations of the end of the war:
There was no part of the show on the thanksgiving‑day that so much pleased and affected me as the little boys and girls who were ranged with so much order and decency in . . . the Strand. . . . Such a numerous and innocent multitude, clothed in the charity of their benefactors, was a spectacle pleasing both to God and man. . . . Never did a more full and unspotted chorus of human creatures join in a hymn of devotion. The care and tenderness, which appeared in the looks of their several instructors, who were disposed among this little helpless people, could not forbear touching every heart that had any sentiments of humanity. . . . I have always looked on this institution of charity‑schools, which of late years has so universally prevailed through the whole nation, as the glory of the age we live in, and the most proper means that can be made use of to recover it out of its present degeneracy and deprivation of manners. It seems to promise us an honest and virtuous posterity. There will be few in the next generation, who will not at least be able to write and read, and have not had an early tincture of religion. 
Or, as Vicesimus Knox wrote later, of the 'modern palaces erected for the poor and the afflicted': 'These . . . are the trophies of Christianity. . . . I congratulated myself on being born in an age in which Christian charity never shone in works of allowed public utility with greater lustre.'  The Charity School movement had begun in 1699 as a means of averting, or ameliorating, a national scandal: namely, the remarkable number of orphaned and abandoned children on the streets of London, 'in tattered raggs, cursing and swearing at one another . . . rolling in the dirt and kennels, or pilfering on the Wharffs and Keys'.  By 1704, there were over fifty schools with over 2000 pupils; by 1730, these figures were almost trebled. On the occasion that Addison was so touched, they were placed, in their thousands, on tiers along the Strand, to see the jubilant procession pass along to St Paul's, and to sing an 'Alleluia' chorus in praise of the Queen.
Apart from special occasions such as the thanksgivings of 1713, the usual occasion for the public parade of the charity school children was the first Thursday in May: initiated in 1704, this service of thanks was transferred to St Paul's in 1782. The Times' reporter in 1788 gave a glowing account of such an occasion:
Yesterday being the Anniversary of the Patrons and Subscribers to all the Charity Schools in London, Westminster, and Southwark, the children of the different Charities were assembled in St Paul's Cathedral. . . . The temporary erection is well designed to display the glorious sight of 6000 children, reared up under the humane direction of the worthy Patrons, and supported by the public contributions of well‑disposed persons, which must raise the mind to sympathy and brotherly-love . . . – his present Majesty, by affording it his presence, would be aiding to [sic] the nurture of a future generation to fight his battles—carry forward the commerce and manufactories of Great Britain, and assist in maturing infant arts, to the honour and prosperity of the country . . . A most excellent sermon was preached on the occasion, by the Right Hon. Lord Bagot, Bishop of Norwich, who took great pains in a sermon of forty minutes, to explain the tendency of this laudable institution—the great duty required from his young Auditors to show their gratitude to their benefactors.
After the sermon, the children sang the 100th Psalm and 140th Psalm, and the reporter waxed sentimental: 'the artless notes of youthful innocence afforded more pleasing sensation, than the notes of the most celebrated performers. . . .' 
That is the 'philanthropic' view of the occasion, fitting neatly into a view of society as decently doing its duty to the deserving poor, and simultaneously making a sound investment, for the pupils emerged from the charity schools well scrubbed and tamed, ready to take their appointed, subordinate place as servants, clerks, apprentices, cabin‑boys, and so on. But how did the same occasion appear to the 'innocent' eye?
We know that Hector Berlioz was deeply moved by the spectacle when he saw it in 1851—a choir of 6500 children could hardly have failed to move such a man: he added a chorus to his Te Deum as a result, scored for a modest choir of 600! And George Cruikshank drew the procession for his Comic Almanack of 1845, to accompany a serio‑comic piece of verse that oddly echoes Blake:
Oh! 'tis a glorious sight to seeThose rosy little chaps,Decked by the hand of charity,In graceful muffin caps.
The writer observes the sad irony of their dress for the occasion:
The very cap they're doomed to wear,Has cruel mockery in it;Type of a luxury so rareThey ne'er can hope to win it.
But the overall tone Is closer to Hood at his more ludicrously facetious. What, then, of Blake? Here is his 'innocent' view:
Holy ThursdayTwas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces cleanThe children walking two & two in red & blue & green;Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snowTill into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow.Oh what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town!Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs,Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor;Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door. 
The vision here is totally innocent and benign, even to the implicit assumption that 'Thames waters' were clean and seemly.
There is a natural beauty in Uniformity which most People delight in. It is diverting to the Eye to see children well matched, either Boys or Girls, marching two and two in good Order; and to have them all whole and tight in the same Cloaths and Trimming must add to the comeliness of the Sight.
Is that also the voice of innocence? On the contrary, it is from the cynical Bernard de Mandeville's Essay on Charity and Charity Schools (1723). Charity schools, he argued, pleased people for all the wrong reasons: inferior people came to exercise power and authority in them, either as teachers, or as governors.
In all this there is a shadow of property that tickles every body that has a right to make use of the Words, 'Our Parish Church', 'Our Charity Children', but more especially those who actually contribute and have a great hand in advancing the pious work.
Apart from which, education was wasted on such children: all they were fit for was a 'Laborious, Tiresome, and Painful Station of Life' and the sooner they took their due places the better for all concerned, for 'the more patiently they will submit to it ever after'. In de Mandeville's misanthropic vision, everyone was at fault, no one could do right: the voice of worldly 'wisdom' is corrosively reductive: no one is entitled to compassion. What, then, of Blake's 'Experience's view of the matter?
Holy ThursdayIs this a holy thing to see,In a rich and fruitful land,Babes reducd to misery,Fed with cold and usurous hand?Is that trembling cry a song?Can it be a song of joy?And so many children poor?It is a land of poverty!And their sun does never shine,And their fields are bleak and bare,And their ways are fill'd with thorns:It is eternal winter there.For where‑e'er the sun does shine,And where‑e'er the rain does fall:Babe can never hunger there,Nor poverty the mind appall.
The sharp, penetrating, eye of 'Experience' effects a startling transformation: the benevolent, philanthropic hand, holding out the bread of charity, is seen to be 'cold and usurous': for the children's care is seen as a good investment: the interest will serve, in the words of The Times, to 'carry forward the commerce and manufactories of Great Britain . . . to the greater prosperity of the country'. The innocent eye saw the 'joy', the cheerfulness, the awesome solemnity, as Berlioz was to see them in 1851; the eye of experience sees a form of exploitation, but it withholds any providentially benign interpretation: there is none to be had.
A similar dialectic is offered by Blake's poems on the chimney‑sweep. Jonas Hanway had first attempted to rouse the conscience of the nation about child‑sweeps in 1773: as Vicesimus Knox wrote,
Who ever ventured to appear the public advocate of the chimney‑sweeper but Jonas Hanway? The poor infant of five or six years old, without shoes or stockings, almost naked, almost starved, driven up the narrow flue of a high chimney, driven by the menaces and scourges of an imperious master, and sometimes terrified with flames! think of this, ye mothers who caress your infants in your laps . . . and, at the same time, exert your interest and abilities, like Jonas Hanway, in preventing the employment of babes in a work under which the hardened veteran might sink with pain, terror, and fatigue. 
The legislation inspired by Hanway lacked teeth, alas, and it was only after Charles Kingsley published his odd, confused and powerful book, The Water Babies, in 1863, that an effective law was enacted in 1875. Kingsley's use of transformation through water seems to owe something to Blake's Song of Innocence:
The Chimney SweeperWhen my mother died I was very young,And my father sold me while yet my tongue,Could scarcely cry 'weep weep, weep weep,'So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.Theres little Tom Dacre, who cried when his headThat curl'd like a lambs back, was shav'd, so I said:'Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head's bare,You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.'And so he was quiet, & that very night,As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe Ned & JackWere all of them lock'd up in coffins of black,And by came an Angel who had a bright key,And he open'd the coffins & set them all free.Then down a green plain leaping laughing they runAnd wash in a river and shine in the Sun.Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.And the Angel told Tom if he'd be a good boy,He'd have God for his father & never want Joy.And so Tom awoke and we rose in the darkAnd got with our bags & our brushes to work.Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Ingeniously, Blake slips Tom into a dream‑world which is probably the only place in which the boy could plausibly be presented enjoying himself. And the last line is not so much the voice of innocence itself, as the innocent voice, the voice of the child, ingenuously repeating what it has been told by someone who subscribes to a providential scheme of rewards and punishments. The social historians Pinchbeck and Hewitt misconstrued the poem badly, and commented:
The degree to which . . . self‑delusion [on the part of those who exploited children] was possible . . . emerges from contemporary literature. Blake, for example, wrote a well‑known poem, about a chimney‑sweep. . . . For Blake, the chimney‑sweep's salvation lay in resignation, not legislative reform. 
That comment exemplifies the kind of misapprehension that can arise when adults read the Songs of Innocence in isolation; they should also have read the 'contrary' poem of Experience:
The Chimney SweeperA little black thing among the snow:Crying 'weep, weep,' in notes of woe!'Where are thy father & mother? say?''They are both gone up to the church to pray.'Because I was happy upon the heathAnd smil'd among the winters snow:They clothed me in the clothes of death,And taught me to sing the notes of woe.'And because I am happy & dance and sing,They think they have done me no injury:And are gone to praise God & his Priest & KingWho make up a heaven of our misery.'
Blake in the late 1780s was radical, even revolutionary, and his insistence here that the Establishment's 'heaven' is in effect a sanction for social and economic injustice can hardly be construed as an expression of 'resignation'; it is indeed antinomian, even blasphemous, by the lights of orthodoxy. An acceptance of the tensions that he sets up between Innocence and Experience is a condition of 'growing up', a provocation of spiritual and even of political growth; it is also a counterblast aimed against what he perceived as deformative influences, such as the prudential and providential morality of the mercantile classes, well summed up for young readers in the worldly little proverbs of Newbery's Little Pretty Pocket Book. In the event, Blake himself produced, in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an ironic parody of the frontispiece to Newbery's Pocket Book, and of didactic primers in general:  and his Proverbs of Hell offered a direct and lively rebuttal, not only of the commercial platitudes of Newbery's proverbs but also of Mary Wollstonecraft's 'enlightened' and bullying moral severities. 'Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity'; 'Damn braces: Bless relaxes'.  It was entirely characteristic of Blake that, while polite eighteenth‑century opinion deplored the 'vulgar' proverbs of oral tradition, he should make them very much his own. It was also typical of the man that, while deeply sympathetic to Mary Wollstonecraft's fierce political and social indignations, he should see her 'answer' as itself deeply wrong‑headed and wrong-hearted.
Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, calculated to regulate the affections and form the mind to truth and goodness was published by Joseph Johnson in 1788, and reissued in 1791 with illustrations drawn and engraved by Blake, who also engraved the illustrations for Mary's translation of Salzmann's Elements of Morality, published by Johnson in 1790. As Blake was working on his Songs, he thus had occasion simultaneously to give some close attention to the work of a thorough‑going radical spokeswoman for the cause of rational education.
Original Stories has a strong claim to be the most sinister, ugly, overbearing book for children ever published.  It is permeated by a grim, humourless, tyrannical spirit of hectoring and unswerving spiritual and mental rectitude—all in the name of healthy growth: a dream of reason producing, indeed, a veritable monster in the form of Mrs Mason, the book's equivalent of Day's Barlow and Trimmer's Mrs Benson. 'I will give you a moral for your dream', writes Lady Fenn in 1789;  but Mrs Mason, relentless, severe, preoccupied with the 'regulation of appetites' in her two young charges, Mary and Caroline, gives them morals for their waking nightmares. Mrs Barbauld's God is primarily protective toward sleeping children; 'His hand is always stretched out over us' and 'You may close your eyes in safety, for His eye is always open', not to spy, but 'to protect you' (Hymn V). But poor Mary is reduced to nervous insomnia by Mrs 'Nobodaddy' Mason:  'I declare I cannot go to sleep. I am afraid of Mrs Mason's eyes.' Like the pinder in Wordsworth's Prelude,  Mrs Mason is always on the look‑out for any untoward display of irrational impulse, any merely human aberration, any show of freedom of spirit, and quickly blusters in to quell it, and so confine the girls within the pinfold of her own conceit.
It is hardly surprising that Blake was repelled and even horrified by her: when he came to illustrate the book, he turned his gaze away from her, and could not bring himself to draw her likeness. But she reappears in the Songs of Experience as the killjoy, disenchanted nurse of the 'Nurses Song' who tells the children:
Your spring & your day are wasted in playAnd your winter and night in disguise.
'Disguise' here is a shorthand term for 'make‑believe' or 'pretending'. Storytelling is traditionally associated with winter evenings, just as 'pretend-games' are the child's way of redeeming the fact of being sent to bed early. The intimate relationship between Mrs Mason and the life‑denying nurse of Blake's song is underlined by the fact that the drawing that frames the 'Nurses Song' is a direct and unequivocal parody of the frontispiece that Blake had provided for Original Stories. As for Mrs Mason's manic preoccupation with the rational economy of the mind, her severe preoccupation with the unrelenting denial of natural feeling, Blake's own position was perfectly clear:
I was angry with my friend;I told my wrath, my wrath did end.I was angry with my foe;I told it not, my wrath did grow. 
By the early 1790s Blake was clearly reacting against the ostensibly very different values of such as Newbery, on the mercantile side, and Wollstonecraft, on the 'radical' rationalist side. He found them both wanting, and for the same reason: their moral psychology was wrong, falsifying, damaging, deformatory. His own position was by this time deeply ironic and ready to embrace paradox: 'without contraries is no progression'. And he was beginning to form clear, sharp and uncompromising alternatives to both the philistine mealy-mouthed didactics such as Newbery, and to the arid and arithmetical ultra‑rationalism of the stridently enlightened. His alternatives were passionate, intuitive and antinomian, and they were richly fed and sustained by his wide autodidactic reading in philosophy and theology. They centred on an uncompromising and insouciant acceptance of Eros, of desire, of impulse and of natural unrationalized feeling.
The tragedy was that he chose to publish his alternatives in such a form that they had little or no chance of creating the taste whereby they could be appreciated.  It is a curious irony of the time that Wordsworth's Prelude, which also grew out of the moral, intellectual and social ferment of the 1790s, and also offered a radical and passionate counteraction, was also to be kept—at least for fifty years—from the larger reading public.
Blake's works for children were not yet complete. He had one more offering for them, and it was as far removed from the prevailing rage for Lilliputian rationality as could be imagined; it seems to have been designed indeed to countervail both in form and content the conventions of explicitness and enlightenment through overt instruction.
In general, the didactic fashion in books for children had drawn on two rather jaded traditions: the fable, which offered examples of virtue and vice in action; and the emblem, which presented an object for contemplation, the allegorical or anagogical significance being carefully disentangled and explained. By Blake's time, both had developed, or degenerated, to a point where no room was left at all for the play of precritical, preconceptual, intuitive understanding: no room left for 'poetic' meaning because the writers were committed to guiding by explanation, taking the young readers by the elbow or the scruff of the neck, to make sure that they did not miss the 'point'. Quite the opposite of the subtle uncalculating art of the traditional tale; as Walter Benjamin said,
It is half the art of story‑telling to keep a story free from explanation. . . . The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks. 
David Erdman has shown us, in his exploration of Blake's Notebook,  that Blake was familiar with both the older emblem‑books, such as that of Francis Quarles (1635), and the more recent ones, such as Wynne's of 1772. In their prime, they had provided an occasion for the contemplation of sacred mysteries, and exemplified what Benjamin observed of story they had 'achieved an amplitude that information lacks'; but they had gradually and irrevocably lapsed into the business of tendering advice on how to get through life with the minimum of distress or trouble: a process of secularization, or prophanation, had overtaken them. By the time Blake turned his mind to them they were already on the way out: when, in the 1790s, John Aikin and Mrs Barbauld produced Evenings at Home, they put the following words into Cecilia's mouth: 'Pray, papa, what is an emblem? I have met with the word in my lesson today, and I do not quite understand it.'
Blake decisively rejected the secularized, explicatable, eighteenth‑century form, and his reason for doing so involved a fundamental insight: 'The Last Judgment', he wrote in his Notebook, ‘is not Fable or Allegory but Vision. Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry.’  He recognized, however, that even though they were degenerate, they might still possess vestigial powers: 'Note here that Fable or Allegory is seldom without some Vision. Pilgrim's Progress is full of it.' But he acknowledged that there was a 'Mighty difference' between 'Allegoric Fable & Spiritual Mystery'. He had, then, arrived at a rejection of the 'knowing' analytic, step-counting orthodoxies of the rationalists and of the conventional forms of moral instruction. He was later to write: 'The Learned, who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning, appear to Children like dead horses, when repelled by the celestial spheres'; and 'the Beauty of the Bible is that the most Ignorant and Simple Minds Understand it Best'—not unlike Morgann's perception of women and children drinking in Shakespeare while the scholars knitted their heavy brows!
Could Blake, then, speak directly to children, and effectively address his vision to their pre‑critical minds or souls? Songs of Innocence is triumphant proof that he could do so. But could he subvert or side‑step the operations of the consciously cognitive mind even further by addressing them virtually without words, by emblem alone? As Auden has remarked, 'the significance of an emblem is not, like a simile, self‑evident. The artist who uses one must either assume that his audience already knows the symbolic association—it is a legend of the culture to which he belongs—or, if it is his own invention, he must explain it.'  Was it possible to get round these conditions, and to create a new repertoire of emblems, that would speak for themselves?
This was the task that Blake set himself in the late 1780s. The various stages that his emblems went through have been scrupulously charted by David Erdman so that we can now see the way in which 'Ideas of Good and Evil' eventually became The Gates of Paradise, a series of seventeen emblems 'For Children' (1793). In the Songs of Experience, the sunflower was offered as a 'vision', an enigma, unyielding to the reasoning intellect, offering its meaning in exclusively poetic ways, and completely divested of the 'fable' of Hyperion and Clytie from which it derived. The emblem was left to speak for itself. Similarly, these little pictures are divested of all support, save for a few intriguing minimal captions. Consider, then, the frontispiece: two oak‑leaves, one in shade, the other in light. On the first is a caterpillar, or 'worm', that is nibbling away at its supporting leaf. On the second, with its face turned up to the light, is a little swaddled creature, a human infant in chrysalis‑form. And beneath the picture, there are three words: 'What is Man!' The Infant, left to itself, will presumably break out of its swaddlings, put out its wings and fly. This may be compared with what Mrs Barbauld had made of similar material, in her Hymn XIV:
I have seen the insect, being come to its full size, languish and refuse to eat: it spun itself a tomb, and was shrouded in the silken cone; it lay without feet, or shape, or power to move. I looked again, it had burst its tomb: it was full of life, and sailed on coloured wings through the soft air; it rejoiced in its new being.
This may well strike us as having a certain charm; but it is set in the context of a series of conventional analogies, all of which are disposed to support her essential—and predictable?—argument: 'Jesus hath conquered death: child of immortality! mourn no longer.' Mrs Barbauld's eyes are seen to be firmly set—as the child‑reader's eyes are to be set—on the after‑life; and her Hymns exemplify the conventional and jaded dichotomies: Good and Evil, Human and Divine, Salvation and Damnation, and Mortal and Immortal.
By the time he came to make The Gates of Paradise, Blake was rejecting these conventional Christian beliefs, for the simple reason that for him there was no longer any truth in them, but rather 'Serpent Reasonings of Good & Evil, Virtue & Vice'—'reasonings' which not only 'entice us' but are drummed into tender minds as the only truth by the Mrs Trimmers, the Mrs Masons and the Mrs Bensons, the monitorial handmaidens of a tyrannical Nobodaddy:
Why darkness & obscurityIn all thy words & laws,That none dare eat the fruit but fromThe wily serpent's jaws?Or is it because SecresyGains females' loud applause?
The neatly schematized doctrines of conventional religion did not correspond with the facts, the personal truths of his own experience. Furthermore, Christian dogma was mediated by those who 'have spent their lives in Curbing & Governing other People's [Passions] by the Various arts of Poverty & Cruelty of all kinds'. Even woman had become the agent of a moral tyranny, 'Prying after Good & Evil', and serving the patriarchy of 'God Almighty [who] comes with a thump on the Head' rather than 'Jesus Christ [who] comes with a balm to heal it'. Lavater had written 'I know not which of those two I should wish to avoid most; the scoffer at virtue and religion ... OR THE PIETIST, WHO CRAWLS, GROANS, BLUBBERS, AND SECRETLY SAYS TO GOLD, THOU ART my hope! and to his belly, thou art my god!': and Blake wrote in the margin 'I hate crawlers. 
Mrs Barbauld's emblems were conventional, explicated, and as familiar as the iconography of the cross. But, given Blake's free spirit and the autochthonous nature of his spiritual life, was there ever any chance that the emblems of The Gates of Paradise would offer a poetic, symbolic alternative to 'debtor and creditor notions of morality' to the children of the 1790s? Did they, indeed, fall into the hands of any appreciable number of children? Or was Blake, in his visionary ingenuousness, over‑reaching the limits of his medium, and simply demanding too much?
It is clear that he himself was forced to reconsider the feasibility of his enterprise, for he abandoned his plans for a companion‑book, The Gates of Hell, and subsequently reissued Paradise for an adult readership—'For the Sexes' about twenty‑five years later. In the event, he seems to have realized that his little emblems, loaded with meanings, but depending entirely on the relatively obscure image, were too cryptic. So he fell back on words, and on his title‑page spelled out his meaning:
Mutual Forgiveness of each Vice,Such are the Gates of Paradise. . . .
The caterpillar of the frontispiece was now glossed:
The Caterpillar on the LeafReminds thee of thy Mother's Grief.
He provided keys for all the emblems, and added an Epilogue, addressed to 'the Accuser who is the God of This World'. 'Reason' or 'reasoning' emerges from the sequence as the way of error and illusion; prudential morality as a source of moral perversion and of sorrow, and as the denial of an inherently benign Nature.
Alas, it has to be said that only a very careful reading of Erdman's exhaustive analysis of the Notebook, together with a peaceful contemplation of the emblems, is likely to bring most modern readers anywhere near a positive appreciation of this visionary, resonant, idiosyncratic and enigmatic work. The tragedy of The Gates, as of Blake's subsequent output, is the growing disconnection between the genius and his public; a growing privacy, and a deepening privation. Political factors clearly exacerbated his own hermetic inclinations: in a decade of severe political repression, he learned to write heresy and treason under the guise of exotic myth. But he never wrote again for children; and the loss is immeasurable, for Songs of Innocence was the only work of genius for children, in its Century.
1 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 9 vols (York, later London, 1760‑7), vol. I, chs V and IX.
2 William Blake's Writings, ed. G.E. Bentley, Jr, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), vol. II, pp. 875‑900. Quotations are from this edition.
3 Through the mediation of enlightened spirits such as Dr Thomas Percival of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society such matters entered quickly into the repertoire of young peoples' reading. See below, Chapter Nine, nn. 15 and 18.
4 Stylistically — 'was clever at Fissic Follogy. . .' — this is an acute adumbration of an actual infantine performance in which Blake himself became involved. See below, p. 276.
5 Maria Edgeworth, Belinda (1801), ch. 5.
6 Godwin, Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Fuseli and Tom Paine were some of the more celebrated, or notorious, who met there.
7 A characteristic situation, duly moralized, in many children's books of this time.
8 See John Holloway, Blake: The Lyric Poetry (London: Edward Arnold, 1968).
9 'Isaac Watts', in Lives of the English Poets, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), vol. 2.
10 John Holloway (op. cit., p. 35) is entirely convincing in relating this also to Philip Doddridge's Hymn 100.
11 John Wesley, Hymns for Children (1763). Christopher Smart, Hymns for the Amusement of Children (1775).
12 Notebook, p. 101; in Writings, vol. 11, p. 974.
13 The Guardian, no. 105 (11 July 1713).
14 Vicesimus Knox, Winter Evenings; or, Lucubrations on Life and Letters, 3 vols (London: Charles Dilly, 1788), vol. II, pp. 23 1‑2: reprinted in The British Essayists, 45 vols (London: T. & J. Allman, 1823), vol. 42, p. 169.
15 Quoted by I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, Children in English Society, 2 vols (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969 and 1973), Vol. I, p. 293.
16 The Times (6 June 1788).
17 Songs of Innocence are quoted from Writings, vol. 1, pp. 22‑61; Songs of Experience, ibid., pp. 171‑200.
18 Knox, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 233‑4; reprinted in The British Essayists, vol. 43, p. 128. Cf. Sydney Smith, 'Chimney sweepers', a review of the Account of the Society for superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys, in the Edinburgh Review (1819). This inspired James Montgomery to produce his Chimney-Sweeper's Friend, and Climbing‑Boy's Album (1824). Montgomery included Blake's poem, which had been sent to him by Charles Lamb, who characteristically changed the name 'Tom Dacre' to the Blytonish 'Tom Toddy'.
19 Pinchbeck and Hewitt, op. cit., vol. I, p. 355.
20 Cf. Gary J. Taylor, 'The Structure of The Marriage: A Revolutionary Primer', Studies in Romanticism, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring 1974), p. 141; and David Erdman, The Illuminated Blake (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 80.
21 Writings, vol. I, pp. 81, 83.
22 Claire Tomalin's biography is a remarkable effort at rehabilitation, yet even she admits to finding a sinister note in Mary Wollstonecraft's fiction. The most searching account of Wollstonecraft remains that of Virginia Woolf, in The Common Reader, second series (London: Hogarth Press, 1932), pp. 156‑63.
23 In The Fairy Spectator.
24 Cf. David Erdman's edition of Blake's Notebook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. N109, last line.
25 The Prelude, bk V, II.238‑45 and 358‑62.
26 ‘A Poison Tree’.
27 Cf. Robert Fellowes's comment, above, p. 204; Blake's suppression of his French Revolution (1791); and Wordsworth's Excursion, bk 3, I.827.
28 Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller', in Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 83.
29 See note 24, above.
30 Notebook, p. 68.
31 The Dyer's Hand (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), p. 301.
32 J. C. Lavater, Aphorisms (London: J. Johnson, 1788), p. 25; quoted with Blake's comment, from Writings, vol. II, p. 1354.
SOURCE: Summerfield, Geoffrey. Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Chapter 7: "Apotheosis of the Chap-Book," pp. 208-240 (sans illustrations).
and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century:
Introduction (extract) & Chapter 1 by Geoffrey Summerfield
Child-Rearing, Education, & Children's Literature
in the British Enlightenment:
William Blake Study Guide
History of the
Professional Writer & Reading Public / Audiences
The Romantic Era / The Working Class Reader / Literary Form / Division of Labor
The Enlightenment (bibliography)
Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide
Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide
Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography
Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress
[Childhood Imagery in Romantic Literature]
by Erica Lell
Home Page | Site
Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links
CONTACT Ralph Dumain
Uploaded 25 August 2010
Site ©1999-2010 Ralph Dumain